money matters

Coloradans seeking more school funding inch closer to 2018 ballot

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

Proponents of increasing funding for Colorado’s public schools cleared a major hurdle this week in their attempt to ask voters to bump up taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.

A state panel made up of representatives from the legislature, attorney general’s and secretary of state’s offices on Wednesday approved language for eight different ballot initiatives that, if any one is approved by voters in November, would raise between $1.4 billion and $1.7 billion more for Colorado schools.

While each proposal varies slightly, each would create a new graduated income tax on individuals making more than $150,000. Some proposals would also create a new corporate tax, while others would make modifications to how personal and commercial property is taxed for schools. Some do all three.

The backers of the measures — Martha Olson of Boulder and Donald Anderson of Fort Collins — expect to file another 10 initiatives with the Secretary of State by the end of the month. Altogether, they will ask the state to approve nearly 20 different versions of the same concept. Individuals and groups seeking to put questions on the ballot sometimes float a few different versions of the same question to test political viability.

Ultimately, though, voters will vote on just one of the various proposals — if Olson and Anderson and their network of supporters can gather enough signatures to place one on the ballot.

The state’s approval of the ballot language comes on the eve of the 2018 legislative session where lawmakers are at the midpoint of studying and — if an agreement can be reached — updating the way the state funds its schools.

Taken together, 2018 could be a watershed year for the school finance debate that has bedeviled lawmakers and school leaders alike for decades.

It could also be the year everything falls apart: There’s no guarantee that lawmakers will reach consensus on how to update the funding system. And any ballot initiative faces a steep upward battle — especially after voters made it more difficult to pass such measures.

This election also will also feature a deeply partisan gubernatorial race — the likes of which the state hasn’t seen in decades. And the specter of President Trump’s Washington will loom large in congressional races.

Olson and Anderson, who are working with some of the state’s most ardent supporters of increasing school funding, acknowledged the long road ahead, but said it was imperative for the voters to act.

“It’s an enormous effort,” Olson, a former New York educator, said. “But there’s a growing recognition that something has to be done. … Our kids can’t wait.”

Colorado’s state constitution requires voters to approve all new tax increases. Voters have so far rejected every proposed tax increase for schools put before them. The last time voters considered a tax increase in 2013, it was defeated two-to-one.

And now after the 2017 election, there’s an even higher threshold to pass such constitutional amendments — 55 percent of voters. Voters approved the higher threshold at the last election.

Anderson, who is a father of two students in the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, said he hopes a greater grassroots push and clear messaging about how much additional revenue each school district stands to receive will help them succeed where others have failed.

“The biggest part is building a good base,” Anderson said.

He added that one of the reasons he got involved is because of the growing inequities among school districts that have passed local tax increases for schools and those that haven’t.

“We’ve been lucky, out voters have stepped up,” Anderson said. “But from corner to corner, that isn’t the case. And the challenges we face as a whole really irritates me.”

Not everyone in the education community is anxious to ask voters again for more money.

“Colorado voters have been really clear that they want schools to be prioritized but aren’t willing to invest more,” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies including charter schools and school quality ratings.

Ragland said he hopes that lawmakers can come up with better ways to spend the more than $6.5 billion in tax dollars the state already sends to schools.

“I’m getting really frustrated with the conversation that nothing can change until we have more money,” Ragland said. “There are things we can do to improve the way we fund schools that can help kids immediately.”

Supporters of increased school funding point to numerous different reports that put Colorado at or near the bottom in spending per pupil. This year the state is spending about $6,546 per student. Conservatives argue, however, that a more accurate number is closer to $10,000 when you factor in local tax increases, grants and federal dollars.

Supporters, likely opponents and political observers all say it is unclear whether the political climate of 2018 will help or hinder their cause.

On one hand, a billion dollar tax increase could hinder the chances of Democrats winning seats. While on the other, progressives and Democrats dissatisfied with the Trump administration are expected to turn out in far greater numbers for a midterm election.

“I have to believe it’s going to be a big Democratic turnout,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. “I actually think it’s a good time for a progressive ballot initiative. An income tax might not be popular, but given the climate in Washington and the 1 percent doing so well — it may not be a losing position.”

Teske previously sat on the board of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for greater school funding and that is consulting with Olson and Anderson on the ballot initiatives.

Ragland, the conservative, echoed Teske’s sentiment that Democrats are likely to have a banner year but cautioned that much can change between now and November.

“If you look at who has the wind at heir back, it’s definitely the folks on the left,” Ragland said. “But it’s a long way until Election Day.”

recruitment and retention

School districts counting on public support for higher teacher pay to pass new tax increases

Teacher Christina Hafler and her two-year-old daughter Emma join hundreds of other educators at a rally outside the State Capitol to call for increased eduction funding on April 16, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Most school districts asking voters to approve local tax increases for schools this November have one thing in common: They are promising that money will go to raise teacher pay.

Polls show voters are inclined to support increasing teacher pay this year, following several high-profile walkouts across the country where teachers shared their struggles with working multiple jobs, and paying out of their own pocket to outfit their classrooms or help feed hungry students.

“Right now you got a pretty clear majority of people saying, teachers deserve more,” said Keith Frederick, who conducts polls for school districts and other government bodies to determine if they should put requests on the ballot. “Voters are very interested, these days anyway, they’re interested in their community schools, higher teacher pay.”

Many officials from those districts say the pay they offer simply isn’t keeping up with nearby districts, meaning a harder time recruiting and retaining teachers. Salaries and employee benefits take up the largest chunk of school district budgets.

School districts in Aurora, Jeffco, Westminster, Douglas County and Sheridan are among the districts making a local request this November. Ballots have been mailed out this week, and voters will start to decide if the request is worth a local tax increase.

Statewide, teacher pay in Colorado ranks below national average.

But measuring how competitive teacher compensation actually is among districts can be complicated. Surveys and studies show that salaries alone do not account for what keeps teachers in their job or what makes them leave. And how teachers get paid in some districts is complicated, based sometimes on their evaluations, or performance of their students, or school, or the difficulty in filling the job they’re in.

Then there are other work conditions that can be considered benefits. The school district based in Brighton moved this year to a four-day school week after failing to pass several tax measures. Although the change will only result in small savings, the district claims it’s a new way to attract teachers without having to raise pay.

But looking at state data for last year, most districts that have the highest starting salaries or average pay for teachers, including Cherry Creek, Boulder, and Poudre, also have the lowest teacher turnover.

Average teacher pay and teacher turnover rates

 

DISTRICT Average Pay Percent Teacher Turnover
Thompson $49,572 16.8 %
Poudre $54,140 9.7 %
Douglas County $53,080 13.4 %
Elizabeth $40,471 23.2 %
Littleton $66,399 9.5 %
Aurora $54,742 26.2%
Cherry Creek $71,711 10.1 %
Sheridan $49,535 35.9 %
Denver $50,757 20.3 %
Jeffco $57,154 14 %
Westminster $58,976 19.1 %
Adams 12 $59,511 12.8 %
Boulder $75,220 10.33 %
Pueblo 60 $47,617 18.3 %
Pueblo 70 $49,328 13.6 %

*Source: Colorado Department of Education. Districts in bold have a tax request tied to teacher pay on this November’s ballot.

None of those three districts are requesting local tax increases this year, but their neighboring districts, including in Douglas County, Elizabeth, Jeffco and Thompson, are.

The contrasts between districts can be large. In the neighboring Poudre and Thompson districts, the difference in the average pay is about $5,000, and the difference in starting salaries is even larger. Higher-paying Poudre has a teacher turnover rate of less than 10 percent. In lower-paying Thompson, the turnover rate is about 17 percent.

The Thompson district is requesting a $13.8 million mill levy override to raise teacher pay, and to purchase new books and technology. The district is also requesting a $149 million bond for building maintenance, security improvements and a new school.

Some of the districts requesting tax increases this year have failed to win voter approval before, including Thompson, Westminster and Jeffco. Although several factors including the political culture of the districts influence the vote, highlighting what voters value — like boosting teacher salaries — might improve the chances of voter approval.

Although most of the local tax measures don’t face organized opposition, criticism of a statewide tax measure for schools might impact other questions down the ballot. Critics of the statewide school measure have said that districts are not under obligation to use the money to pay teachers more, and worry that new money could go into administrative costs instead.

Some districts are trying to create assurances for voters.

Aurora Public Schools agreed to language in its contract with the teachers union that requires the district to set aside at least $10 million from new mill levy revenue, if approved, to give teachers a 3 percent raise starting in January. Remaining money would go into creating a new teacher salary schedule.

The Jeffco school board passed a resolution that commits a certain percentage of new tax revenue for teacher pay. The tax measure also includes language prohibiting use of that revenue for administrative budgets.

Even if districts do use the money for increasing salaries, most districts likely have to negotiate with their employee unions to decide just how to do it — whether it’s raising base salary, giving across-the-board raises, or creating new systems that reward certain teachers.

Several school boards across the state also passed resolutions committing to certain items that would get funding first if voters approve the state ballot request for new school funding. One common, top priority among those is improving salaries.

Denver’s school leaders said they would use the largest portion of the proposed new state revenue for teacher salaries. Negotiations there have been heated, as district leaders insist the state measure needs to pass in order for the district to come closer to meeting the union’s demands.

School Finance

School health clinics could take a hit under rule to restrict green cards for immigrants who receive public aid

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

One student stands out in Dr. Viju Jacob’s mind when he thinks about all the patients he’s seen in his 15 years at school-based health clinics: a Central American immigrant enrolled at a Bronx high school in 2012.

The student did not have insurance, which Jacob said is common for new immigrants, but the clinic offers free care regardless of a student’s immigration or insurance status. That’s thanks to Medicaid funding from other students’ claims.

Over the next four years, the student returned to the clinic, located in his school, when he needed a physical or simple treatment. But it wasn’t just his physical health that improved.

“He got a lot of soft emotional support,” Jacob said. “Coming to us, having people who spoke his language or his native language to sort of encourage him, help him with filling out forms.”

Jacob and immigrant advocates worry students like this may not get the support they need under a new federal proposal that would make it tougher for immigrants to successfully seek green cards if they rely on public benefits.

“Especially in New York City and in the New York City public school system, a large portion of the student population in some shape or form is on Medicaid or Medicaid managed care,” Jacob said. “That is such a large pool that could be affected if this rule gets implemented.”

To receive a green card, immigrants currently have to prove they won’t be a burden on the government, so officials already consider the cash benefits that they receive when reviewing applications. But now, for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security wants to expand the rule so that green cards can be denied to immigrants who rely on benefits such as  non-emergency Medicaid, Medicare Part D, food stamps or forms of housing assistance.

Researchers and immigration advocates believe that even though a final decision on the proposal is months away, news of this rule could persuade large swaths of immigrants to halt their public benefits, out of fear it will affect their ability to become permanent U.S. residents. In a recent analysis, the city estimated that 75,000 New York City immigrants may have to choose between benefits and a green card.

And fewer Medicaid enrollees means fewer dollars rolling into clinics that serve at least 387 schools across the system, since they operate through partnerships with healthcare providers and depend, in part, on Medicaid funding that students may claim. It’s too early to tell the exact impact, but advocates, analysts, and even the federal government have acknowledged that the rule change could result in loss of funding.

“It’s bad enough for the families, and it’s even worse for us because we rely heavily on that funding stream,” said Jacob.

Clinics were a big part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first-term education agenda, which involved providing more schools with wrap-around services.

“Taking away services that keep children well-fed and healthy is wrong,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for de Blasio, in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We’ll continue to ensure that our children, regardless of their and their family’s immigration status, have the resources they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

It’s not clear how many children are enrolled in the school-based clinics or how many, on average, use them. The city’s Department of Education didn’t respond to requests for comment about the rule change, including what portion of Medicaid funds buoy school health clinics, which are run by medical centers, local hospitals and community organizations. 

According to Jacob, who is also board chairman of New York School Based Health Alliance, it’s typical for clinics to receive between two-thirds to half of their funding from Medicaid. The rule is expected to threaten the livelihood of similar clinics in other states, such as Colorado.

If enough people pull out of Medicaid, clinics could seek specific grant funding instead, Jacob said.

This is the latest immigration issue that New York City’s top education officials have had to grapple with. In the past, they’ve been quick to respond, such as reassuring families that their information is safe with the school system. Last year, a school in Queens turned federal immigration agents away after they showed up and asked about a fourth-grader. (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it was an administrative inquiry.)

Last March, the school system updated guidance for principals on immigration issues, stating that only local law enforcement can enter a school unless without a warrant or unless imminent harm is expected.

The Department of Homeland Security touts its proposal by saying its primary benefit would “help ensure that aliens who apply for admission to the United States, seek extension of stay or change of status, or apply for adjustment of status are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations.”

The rule change wouldn’t include free and reduced-price lunch, which is universal in New York City. The rule also wouldn’t apply to families making less than 15 percent of the federal poverty level, refugees, asylum-seekers, legal immigrants in the military or immigrants who receive assistance after natural disasters.

Still, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a “chilling effect” could even dissuade people who are enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which is not included in the proposal, from continuing to receive the benefit. Other analyses come to a similar conclusion, including a June report from by the Migrant Policy Institute.

“In theory people should understand that they don’t need to disenroll their child from benefits because that’s not going to affect them,” said Mike Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, which did an analysis of the “chilling effect” this rule could have. “In practice it may still have that effect because this is very complicated, and we’re operating in an environment of so much fear and uncertainty.”

Beyond clinics losing funding, immigrant parents might be too scared to let their children go to an in-school clinic. Advocates said there is a fear among immigrants over what information government institutions are collecting and how it could be used against them.

Christina Samuels, manager of education policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said her organization has raised these concerns with the education department, which has said it would protect families’ information. School health clinics don’t ask about immigration status.

In Jacob’s experience, students of different ages use the school health clinics for different reasons. Elementary-school students tend to show up because their parents’ work hours are at odds with doctors’ appointment times, and they can’t afford to take a day off. Those children may have an injury looked at, receive treatment for a stomach ache, or get an immunization.

Middle-schoolers usually get their shots or physicals, and some start to ask about reproductive health. And in high school, students receive a number of services, and preventative and emergency contraception may be addressed.

Outside organizations help staff counselors and social workers at some city schools, which staffers say are already stretched thin. Those, too, could also see more demand as students lose reliable access to food and healthcare, Samuels said.

She also pointed to the mental stress on immigrant students digesting another immigrant-related proposal out of Washington, such as  the proposed ban on travelers from certain Muslim countries.

“Now we’re getting into a period where we’re really concerned about the mental health and behavioral health of students,” Samuels said.

City Hall officials have blasted the proposed rule, but have also cautioned that no changes have gone into effect. In a recent press conference, De Blasio said President Donald Trump is trying to “hurt the very people who are contributing to our economy and our future. It makes no sense and we are going to fight it.”

Last week, the federal government opened a 60-day period that allows public comment on its rule. After that, officials will take another 60 days to make a final decision.